12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula

Tim Flight - May 22, 2018

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Purported grave of Vlad Tepes, Snagov Monastery. Wikimedia Commons

How did he die, and where is he buried?

When Corvinus released Vlad Tepes, he acknowledged him as voivode of Wallachia, but did not provide any military assistance to depose Basarab Laiota. Tepes’s release was met with loud approval across Europe, as few had been convinced of his guilt on the basis of the clumsy, forged letters. A year later, in the face of Ottoman aggression against Hungary’s neighbours, Corvinus made Tepes a captain of his army, and the ‘impaler king’ was once more fighting the Turkish army, this time in Bosnia. Incarceration clearly had not changed Tepes’s modus operandi one iota, and the campaign was widely successful.

‘He tore the limbs off the Turkish prisoners and placed their parts on stakes… and displayed the private parts of his victims so that when the Turks see these, they will run away in fear!’, gushed Gabriele Rangoni, the papal legate, after the recapture of Srebrenica in 1476. Tepes was again using his knowledge of the Ottoman character, gained from his teenage years at the court of Murad II, which evidently had not changed much in the 12 years of his imprisonment as the terror-tactics worked. Tepes was once again a celebrated hero of the Christian resistance to Ottoman invasion.

His importance to the successful campaign in Bosnia gained Tepes enough support from the Hungarian court, and even Transylvania, to convince Corvinus to give him military support to regain Wallachia. With a 21, 000-strong army of Hungarians and Transylvanians, Tepes first liberated Moldavia from Turkish occupation, before defeating Basarab Laiota’s army on the Transylvania/ Wallachia border, and gaining control of Wallachia in November 1476. Unfortunately, Basarab Laiota remained at large, and when his great army had left Wallachia, Tepes was exposed to attack and unable to defend himself. Inevitably, Wallachia was invaded, and Tepes was killed in January 1477.

The precise details of his death are unknown. The Austrian chronicler, Jacob Unrest, writes that a Turkish soldier disguised himself as a servant, infiltrated Tepes’s court, and quite literally stabbed him in the back when Basarab Laiota’s men attacked the voivode’s small army near Snagov Monastery. A Russian narrative claims that Tepes was in disguise as a Turk, and mistaken for an enemy by his own men. All we really know is that he died in battle, fighting an army twice the size of his own, and had been severely let down by his myopic allies who left him undefended.

Jacob Unrest also claims that Tepes’s head was cut off and displayed (with deliberate irony) on a stake in Constantinople, to prove that the feared warrior was finally dead. Though it is entirely possible that his body was left to rot or buried in a shallow grave on the battlefield, there is some credence to the story that his mortal remains were found by monks from the nearby Snagov Monastery, and buried at the altar. The monks’ alleged respect for Tepes’s remains can be attributed to his and his family’s significant financial contributions to Snagov Monastery over the years.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Statue of Vlad Tepes, Bucharest Castle, 20th Century. Dr Tim Flight (personal collection)

National Hero

Like many countries in Europe, Romania underwent a national awakening in the 19th century, as the then-divided country was continually threatened by the Ottomans and Romanian people were given few rights by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled them. Hemmed in by enemies from both sides, and resentful of the Saxons, who were viewed as foreign despite their residence having lasted around 700 years, a sense of a Romanian national identity emerged, defined against Hungary, Slavic nations, and of course the hated Ottoman Empire. After a series of bloody uprisings, Romania was officially made a country in 1859.

Discovering a sense of national identity naturally required that great figures of history were celebrated, the most prominent of which was Vlad Tepes. His slippery political alliances during his lifetime meant allowed him to be reinterpreted as a hero who fought bravely against Romania’s enduring enemies: the Saxons, the Ottoman Empire, and the Hungarians. His ruthless administration of justice was also seen sympathetically as a necessity for rule. He was celebrated in art, poetry, and legend, with even the lurid tales of his brutality spread in contemporary pamphlets seen as evidence for his patriotism and effectiveness as a ruler.

For instance, the 15th-century allegation made in German pamphlets that he burned the slothful, poor, and physically disabled out of sheer cruelty was reinterpreted in a positive light by Mihai Eminescu:

You must come, O dread Impaler, confound them to your care.

Split them in two partitions, here the fools, the rascals there;

Shove them into two enclosures from the broad daylight enisle ’em,

Then set fire to the prison and the lunatic asylum. (The Third Letter)

Fighting off Romania’s perennial enemies to preserve its independence whilst maintaining order at home, Vlad Tepes was made into a Romanian Braveheart.

12 Unexpected Facts about Vlad the Impaler, the Real Dracula
Frontispiece of Die geschicht dracole waide, a Saxon pamphlet describing Vlad Tepes’s awful deeds, Nuremberg, 1488. Wikimedia Commons

Victim of Saxon Propaganda?

Now that we have divorced the 15th-century voivode Vlad Tepes, alias Dracula, from Bram Stoker’s fictional, camp vampire, what can we make of the man? It is clear that he was a shrewd politician who changing alliances when it suited him but, somehow, too, a man of honour, holding grudges and avenging the deaths of his friends or his own subjugation when first possible. He was also extremely resourceful and realistic, using the topography of Wallachia to his advantage against his enemies, altering his military tactics when outnumbered, and using psychological warfare against those who had wronged him.

And, yet, there are countless contemporary accusations of his motiveless cruelty. These originate in the pamphlets printed at the time of his imprisonment by Matthias Corvinus, and though later the source of positive legends about him in 19th-century Romania, they are successful in portraying Vlad Tepes as a cruel and bloodthirsty man. Tales such as him dipping his bread into the blood of the impaled and eating dinner surrounded by dying prisoners on stakes turn him into a monster, and are lent plausibility by his known and widely-attested penchant for impaling his enemies. But should we believe the accusations?

Let us consider the title of the pamphlet from which the famous woodcut of Tepes’s meal surrounded by impaled corpses above is derived.

Here begins a very cruel frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves. And many other horrible things are written in this tract.

This pamphlet was published at the instigation of his great enemies, the Transylvanian Saxons.

The crimes listed above are lurid but to the modern eye seem wildly exaggerated. The accounts of cannibalism are only present in Saxon sources, and we need not belabour the fact that they had an axe to grind with a man who disrupted their trade and killed them for opposing his throne in Wallachia. Though he punished the Transylvanian Saxons without mercy, we should also remember that they opposed his rule, and he first tried to settle the dispute through trade restrictions and then diplomacy, but was ignored. The policy of impalement was very much the last resort for Tepes.

In summary, the real Dracula was an effective leader who did what was necessary to protect his throne and territory. His political machinations and actions in war were motivated not by irrational hatred but the need for survival and the brutal culture of his time: as voivode of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes ruled the vulnerable gateway to Europe from the East which was hotly-contested even from within Europe. Far from being the only member of the aristocracy guilty of using cruelty to maintain power in the bloody 15th century, Vlad Tepes was just one of the most successful.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Andreescu, Ștefan. Vlad the Impaler: Dracula. Bucharest: The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, 1999.

Baddeley, Gavin, and Paul A. Woods. Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People. Hersham: Ian Allan, 2010.

Florescu, Radu R., and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula Prince of Many Faces: His Life and Times. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1989.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004.

Treptow, Kurt W. Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula. Portland, OR: The Centre of Romanian Studies, 2000.

Trow, M. J. Vlad the Impaler: In Search of the Real Dracula. Stroud: The History Press, 2015.

Waterson, James. Dracula’s Wars: Vlad the Impaler and his Rivals. Stroud: The History Press, 2019.

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